The Clown Anemonefish, Amphiprion ocellaris (Cuvier), and its host, the Magnificent Sea Anemone, Heteractis magnifica (Quoy & Gaimard), photographed at Stephanie Island, Wayag Islands, Raja Ampat Regency, West Papua, Indonesia. The translucent whitish color of the anemone’s tentacles is the probable result of recent warming of the sea, which caused the expulsion of its zooxanthellae. (J. E. Randall).

by John E. Randall, Ph.D. and Arik Diamant, Ph.D.

Download Original Paper from the Journal of Ocean Science Foundation

Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation, 26, 95115.

The word symbiosis is from the Greek meaning “living together,” but in present usage it usually means two dissimilar organisms living together for mutual benefit. Ecologists today prefer to use the term “mutualism” for this. The significance of symbiosis and its crucial role in coral reef function is becoming increasingly obvious in the world’s warming oceans.

A coral colony consists of numerous coral polyps, each like a tiny sea anemone that secretes calcium carbonate to form the hard skeletal structure of a Scleractinian coral. The polyps succeed in developing into a coral colony only by forming a symbiotic relationship with a free-living yellowish-brown algal cell that has two flagella for locomotion. The flagella drop off, and the cells penetrate the coral tissue to live collectively in the inner layer of the coral polyps as zooxanthellae, giving the coral colony its yellowish-brown color. As plants, the zooxanthellae use the carbon dioxide and water from the respiration of the polyps to carry out photosynthesis that provides oxygen, sugars, and lipids for the growth of the coral. All this takes place within a critical range of sea temperature. If it is too warm or too cold, the coral polyps extrude their zooxanthellae and become white (a phenomenon known as “bleaching”). If the sea temperature soon returns to normal, the corals can be reinvaded by the zooxanthellae and survive.

The current scientific community generally agrees that if the warming of our planet from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation continues, our coral reefs are doomed. The corals of the magnificent Great Barrier Reef of Australia are beginning to die, and the marine life that is dependent on them will likely perish along with them. While we still can, we should all work to better appreciate and study the many unknowns about the biology of coral reefs and the complexity of the webs of life they support.

The iconic symbiotic association that comes to a biologist’s mind is often that of an anemonefish and its host sea anemone (Page 31). The advantage to the anemonefish is obvious: the stinging cells of the anemone’s tentacles dissuade predacious fishes from trying to make a meal of the anemonefish, which is protected by a mucus that prevents the anemone’s stinging cells from firing. But what is the advantage of the partnership to the anemone? Drop a small object, such as a fragment of seagrass, onto the anemone’s tentacles, and you will see—the anemonefish promptly removes it. More important, there are predacious fishes, notably species of the filefish family Monacanthidae, that feed on anemones. Despite its small size, the anemonefish usually succeeds in driving these predators away.


Remembering our success in saving the American Bison and the California Condor from extinction, we believe we should endeavor to do the same for threatened endemic marine fishes and invertebrates. If, as seems inevitable, warming seas continue to cause the loss of corals and their symbionts and the breakdown of symbiotic relationships that have evolved over millennia, we can and should rear endemic marine life in aquariums and aquaculture systems.

The state of Hawaii should be among the first to consider such a conservation project. Twenty-five percent of the reef and shore fishes of the Hawaiian Islands are endemic, the highest proportion of any island region in the world. Hawaii’s most widely exported reef fish, the Yellow Tang, Zebrasoma flavescens, though not endemic, has been successfully reared by Chad Cullen from egg to adult at the Ocean Institute at the University of Honolulu, as have a wide variety of other families of reef fishes. The Hawaii Larval Fish Project by Frank Baensch’s Reef Culture Technologies has now successfully cultured 37 species of Hawaiian fishes (


Knowing that my colleague in Israel, Arik Diamant, had photographs of different species of fish that forage together, as well as fishes with octopuses, I suggested that we join forces and present the best photos we could find to illustrate symbiosis in fishes and other marine organisms found in the vicinity of coral reefs. This article, and our paper in the Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation, are the result. —J. E. Randall

The authors thank Christa Holdt, Michael Roberts, Larry Tackett, Gary Bell and Avi Klapfer for their exceptional photographs illustrating symbiosis in the sea. The comments by Arthur Bos, Mark Hixon, Robert Myers, and Rupert Ormond are greatly appreciated. We are indebted to Mark Hixon and Helen A. Randall for assistance with references. We are most grateful to Benjamin Victor, editor of the Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation, who declined our invitation to join as an author, for his substantial contribution to the paper.


Adapted for CORAL Magazine from:

Randall, J. E. and Diamant, A. 2017. Examples of symbiosis in tropical marine fishes. J Ocean Sci Found 26: 95–115. doi:

John E. Randall, Ph.D., is Senior Ichthyologist Emeritus at the Bishop Museum and a member of the biology faculty at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Honolulu. Randall has described more than 600 fish species and has authored 11 books and over 670 scientific papers and popular articles.

Arik Diamant, Ph.D., is Head of the Department of Pathobiology, National Center of Mariculture, Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, Eilat, Israel.


The following are among the more important papers that report on symbiosis on coral reefs, especially in relation to fishes: Ormond (1980a, 1980b), Diamant & Shpigel (1985), and Bshary et al. (2006).

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